Building my Movie Posters Puzzle: Frankenstein
In late June I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.
Director James Whale’s 1931 production of Frankenstein continues to be one of the most iconic films in the history of cinema and helped to bring Mary Shelly’s creation to the masses in unexpected and perhaps unfortunate ways.The image of the creature animated by Dr. Frankenstein and portrayed by actor Boris Karloff was as famous as Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny more than forty years after the film’s release when I was growing up in the early 1970s. It might have receded a bit in recent years, but is still quite well known. The Whale film that kicked of the mania has its strengths and weaknesses. Let’s discuss.
There is much in this 1931 film (still quite early in the history of movies as mass entertainment) that reminds us of a theatrical production. First and foremost, the film begins with an actual “curtain speech” directed at the audiences in the movie theater. This is a tradition in theatre in which a member of the producing organization, sometimes the director, sometimes a producer, member of the board or cast, rest the audience, typically stepping through the gap in the curtain at center stage and offering a few words about the company or the specific production they are to witness that evening. It’s a tradition that had appeared to fade away until more recent years when companies have found it necessary to remind the audience face to face that they should silence their cell phones…and while we’re doing that, why don’t you donate to the theater who you just paid for your ticket? Admonitions about cell phone use don’t appear to have done much good.
This particular curtain speech is for the purpose of warning audience members who might be of weak constitution that the coming film might horrify them. From the remove of 85 years and a steady stream of rather bloody and gory horror films who owe their existence to the success of the early Universal monster movies these warnings might seem a little humorous. None of the violence shown in Frankenstein is particularly terrifying by those standards, but I have to admit that the mere inclusion of the speech and its final line “well…we’ve warned you!” brought me pleasure well beyond any unintentionally comic value.
After all, Frankenstein does actually deliver some true cinematic thrills. From its first frames, it’s clear that Whale fully understood the dramatic impact that certain shot compositions can impart. And even though it was Boris Karloff who rightly became an international superstar based on his performance as the iconic creature, it is the performance of Colin Clive as the titular scientist that provides so much of the crackle and energy that courses through the film. His reaction to his success in re-animating the dead body he has stitched together is very famous and has been referenced and lampooned repeatedly over the years.
But it would be inappropriate to boil down Clive’s performance to just this one scene. The guy absolutely electrifies (‘natch) almost every frame of celluloid he’s on.
It’s easy to throw stones at some of the technical and story elements that are antiquated nowadays. A body flung from height is obviously a doll made of clothes and stuffing. A hanging body disappears from a room when the characters exit for a while and then re-enter. The very emphasized Germanic setting of the story seems utterly odd considering that it is populated almost exclusively with British and American actors playing stock British character types. Scenes set on a soundstage betray their location when the cyclorama where sky and clouds are projected displays obvious rippling. It would also be easy to criticize the significant changes made by Universal’s writers to the original Mary Shelly novel. For some reason Universal thought its hero’s name should be Henry instead of Victor, but then decided to name a secondary character Victor. The novel is primarily a rumination on the nature of humanity and what it means to be a thinking creature rather than a treatise on the dangers of playing God. These ideas are, in fact, put directly into words by Frankenstein’s “monster,” who confronts Victor and speaks to him in monologue for most of a chapter.
Whale’s film, however, chooses (powerfully to my mind) to leave the creature in the state of an uncomprehending and incomprehensible product of his creation. The film saddles him with a brain that is clearly labeled as “abnormal,” (seriously, how bad an employee is Fritz?) but even with a short scientific explanation of the physiological differences between brains, the “chicken or egg” nature or nurture question is left unanswered in this case. The aforementioned Fritz’s habit of tormenting the creature with a lit torch and whip and Dr. Frankenstein’s decision to keep him sequestered in a dark prison-like room both seem designed to produce a sociopath. Frankenstein is also pretty quick to give up on his experiment, calling him a “monster” when he reacts poorly to the lit torch. Raise your next kid like this and see how he turns out.
The Fritz character fills a role of the hunchbacked assistant to a mad scientist that is traditionally known as “Igor.” No such character appeared in the Mary Shelly story and although sequels to Frankenstein featured a character played by Bela Lugosi named Ygor with a broken neck and elevated right shoulder, but this incarnation is not an assistant of any kind and as you can see in the below trailer, stands fully erect. It’s close but not really the picture of the Igors we would come to know later on.
Somehow, though, over the years the name, occupation, and physical deformity became the de facto idea for this type of story. Most people are surprised when Fritz appears with his given name in this 1931 film.
The character Igor (far left above) from the cartoon special “Mad Mad Mad Monsters,” which aired in 1972, was performed by Allen Swift with an imitation of Peter Lorre, but the actor from classic films never played this character. Comic actor Marty Feldman (middle above) famously played a spoof on the traditional character type in Mel Brooks’ comedy masterpiece Young Frankenstein (1974), but claimed that it should be pronounced “Eye-Gore.” An animated film titled Igor (2008) featured John Cusack as the voice of the titular character (far right above). Igor is name-checked in the famous 1962 novelty hit “Monster Mash,” but with no accompanying description. To add confusion, in a 1946 Three Stooges short there is a lab assistant who says “yes, master,” but a gorilla who is named Igor is a completely different character. It’s a character trope that had seemed to me to be around for decades prior to me being born, but the first true combination of its necessary elements appear to have shown up in a little-known cartoon that was released when I was 2 years old.
There is so much more that could be said about Frankenstein, but I’m going to leave that available to be ruminated over in the comments section. How do you feel about the different adaptations of Frankenstein and when did you first see a hunchbacked lab assistant named Igor?